Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Private Funding for Science – A Good Idea?

Two years ago Warren Buffett asked the community of the super-rich to make a “Giving Pledge”: to commit to donating half of their money to charity. His effort made headlines, and some fellow billionaires joined Buffett’s pledge, among others Bill Gates, George Lucas and Mark Zuckerberg.

Money bags. WPClipart.
The wealthy Europeans however have remained skeptic, for good reasons. Money brings influence – influence that can conflict with democratic decisions, a fact that Europeans seem to be more acutely aware of than Americans. The German Peter Krämer, who I guess counts as rich though not as super-rich, said about Buffett’s pledge:
    “In a democratic nation, one cannot allow billionaires to decide as they please which way donations are used. It is the duty of the government, and thus in the end that of the citizens, to make the right decisions.” [Source]
Instead, Krämer argues that taxes should be raised for the upper class. Since nobody is listening to his wish of being taxed, he launched his own charitable project “Schools for Africa.”

The NYT last month raised the question “[C]an charity efficiently and fairly take the place of government in important areas? Or does the power of wealthy patrons let them set funding priorities in the face of government cutbacks?” In the replies, Chrystia Freeland from Thomson Reuters relates how a wealthy American philanthropist coined the term “self-tax” for charitable donations, and she brings the problem to the point:
    “From the point of view of the person writing the check, the appeal of the self-tax is self-evident: you get to choose where your money goes and you get the kudos for contributing it.

    But for society as a whole, the self-tax is dangerous. For one thing, someone needs to pay for a lot of unglamourous but essential services, like roads and bank regulation, which are rarely paid for by private charity.

    Even more crucially, the self-tax is at odds with a fundamental democratic principle -- the idea that we raise money collectively and then, as a society, collectively choose how we will spend it.”
The same discussion must be had about private funding of science.

Basic research, with its dramatically high failure rate, is for the most part an “unglamorous” brain exercise whose purpose as well as appeal is difficult to communicate. Results can take centuries to even been recognized as results. The vast majority of researchers and research findings will not even make a footnote in the history of science. Basic research rarely makes sexy headlines. And if, it is because somebody misspelled hadron. All that makes it an essential, yet unlikely, target of private donations.

Even Jeffrey Sachs, after some trial and error, came around to realize that raw capitalism left to its own devices may fail people and societal goals. Basic investments like infrastructure, education, and basic research are tax-funded because they're in the category where the market works very badly, where pay-offs are too far into the future for tangible profits.

The solution to this shortcoming of capitalism cannot be to delegate decisions to the club of billionaires and hope they be wise and well-meaning. Money is not a good. It’s a virtual tool to direct investment of real resources: labor, energy, time. The central question is not whose money is it, but how resources are best put to use.

We previously discussed a specific type of private funding of science: crowdfunding. The problem with crowdfunding is that chances of funding depend primarily on the skilled presentation of a project, and not on its potential scientific relevance.

A recent article in Time Magazine “Crowdfunding a Cure” (subscription only) reported a trend from the United States in which online services allow patients and their relatives to raise money to pay for medical treatments, organ donations, or surgeries. One obvious problem with this approach is fraud. (If you think nobody would possibly want to fake cancer, think twice and read this.) What bothers me even more is the same issue as with the crowdfunding of science: You better be popular and good at social networking if you want to raise enough money for a new kidney. Last week’s issue of Time Magazine published a reader’s comment from Claes Molin, Sweden. This is how crowdfunding medical treatments looks from the Scandinavian perspective:
    “It is moving to read about the altruism displayed by crowdfunding for medical procedures, and I don’t doubt the sincerity of the donors. But the steps described to raise money, including displaying personal details for strangers to see and remembering to say “thank you,” sound a lot like being forced to beg. I understand that values differ, but government-funded health care would let people keep their dignity, along with their peace of mind, in the face of life-threatening disease.”
A thesis project isn’t as serious as a life-threatening disease, but the root of the problem with crowdfunding either is the same. Crowdfunding is neither an efficient nor a fair way to distribute money, and thus the resources that follow. It is a simple way, a presently popular way, and a last hope resort for those who have been failed by their government. But researchers shouldn’t be forced to waste time on marketing like patients shouldn’t be forced to waste time on illustrating their sufferings, and in neither case should the success depend on the popularity of their presentation.

Be that as it may, crowdfunding is and will most likely remain a drop in the drying lake of science funding. I strongly doubt it has the potential to significantly change the direction of scientific research; there just isn’t enough money to go round in the crowd. Paying attention to private funding by wealthy individuals is much more pressing.

Wealthy donors often drive their own agenda. This bears a high risk that some parts of research, the “unglamorous” but essential parts, simply do not receive attention, and that researcher’s interests are systematically skewed to the disadvantage of scientific progress.

The German association of science foundations (“Deutscher Stifterverband für die Wissenschaft”) is, loosely speaking, a head organization for private donors to science that manages funds. (Note that the German use of the word “science” encompasses the natural and social sciences as well as the humanities and mathematics.)

I once spent a quite depressing hour browsing through the full list of in total 560 foundations that they have to date (this includes foundations exclusively for scholarships and prizes). 56 of them are listed under natural sciences and engineering. There isn’t a single one remotely related to quantum gravity or physics beyond the standard model. The two that come closest are the Andrejewski Foundation that hands out a total of EUR 9000 per year to invite lecturers on topics relating math and physics, and the Schmidt Foundation for basic research in the natural sciences in general, which however has an even smaller total funding. (Interestingly, their fund is distributed by the German Research Foundations and, so I assume, subject to the standard peer review.)

Then what do people donate to in the natural sciences? Most donors, it seems, donate to very specific topics that are closely related to their own interest. Applications of steel for example. Railroad development. The improvement of libraries at technical universities. The scientific cooperation between Hungary and Germany. And so on.

So much about the vision of the wealthy. To be fair however, the large foundations are not to be found in this list, they do their own management. And there exist indeed the occasional billionaires with an interest in basic research in physics, such as Kavli, Lazaridis, Tschira, Templeton. And, more recently, Yuri Milner with his sur-prizes.

If you work like me in a field that seems constantly underfunded, where you see several hundred applications for two-year positions and people uproot families every other year to stay in academia, you are of course grateful to anybody who eases financial pressures.

But what price is the scientific community paying?

Money sets incentives and affects researcher’s scientific interests by offering funding, jobs, or rewards. The recurring debate over the influence of the Templeton foundation touches on this tension. And what effect will Milner’s prizes have on the coming generation of scientists? We have a lot to lose in this game if we allow the vanity of wealthy individual to influence what research is conducted tomorrow.

There is another problem with private funding, which is lack of financial stability. One of the main functions of governmental funding of basic research is its sustained, continuous availability and reliability. High quality research builds on educational and technological infrastructure and expertise. It withers away if funding runs dry, and once people have moved elsewhere or to other occupations, rebuilding this infrastructure and attracting bright people is difficult and costly. Private donations are ill-suited to address this issue. A recent Nature Editorial “Haste not Speed” comments on the problem of stability with US funding in particular:
    “[W]hen it comes to funding science, predictability is more of a virtue than speed, and stability better than surprise.”
All this is not to say that I disapprove of private funding. But as always, one has to watch out for unwanted side-effects. So here’s my summary of side-effects:
  • Interests of wealthy individuals can affect research directions leading to an inefficient use of resources, leaving essential areas out of consideration. Keep in mind that the relevant question is not whose money it is, but how it is best used to direct investment of resources into an endeavor, science, with the aim of serving our societies.
  • When it comes to delicate questions like which scientific project is most promising, somebody’s personal interest or experience is not a good basis for decision. Short-circuiting peer review saves time and effort in the short run, but individual opinion is unlikely to lead to scientifically more desirable outcomes.
  • Eyeing and relying on private donations is tempting for governments and institutional boards, especially when times are rough. This slope can be slippery and lead to a situation where scientists are expected to “beg for money,” which is not a good use of their time and skills, and questionable to result in fair and useful funding schemes.
  • The volume of private funding and the interests of donors tend to be unstable, which makes it particularly ill-suited for areas like basic research where expertise needs sustained financial commitment.
So what is the researcher to do? If somebody offered to fund my project I probably wouldn’t say no: Obviously, I am convinced of the relevance of my own research! Neither would I expect anybody else to do so.

But whenever the situation calls for it, scientists should insist on standard quality control and peer review, and discourage funding schemes that circumvent input from the scientific community. Otherwise we’re passively agreeing on wasting collective effort. The standard funding scheme is taxation channeled to funding agencies. The next easiest thing is donations to existing funding agencies or established institutions, not purpose-bound. Private foundations and their review process are not necessarily bad, but should be treated carefully, especially when more opaque than transparent. And crowdfunding, hip as it sounds, will not work for the unglamorous, dry, incremental investigations that form the backbone of basic research.


  1. I speak for no one but for everyone when I say there is no definite answer as to what circumstances may arise for an individual or group to make decisions. Is there a such factor as to the 'Pureness' of a cause though - a 'Pure' decision so to speak?

  2. I don't get any of the objections, neither in general nor in the case of science. We are not talking about private donations replacing taxation, we are talking about allowing individuals who want to contribute more to do so.

    If someone rich wants to fund something worthwhile that's great, if they want to fund something questionable it's their money, and if they want to fund something harmful to the society that should be handled by laws.

    Same goes for science.

    If you don't want the money for whatever reason simply don't accept it.

    I also don't agree that it's bad that quantum gravity gets little private funding, I actually believe that applications of steel, development of railroads, etc have much higher chances of producing tangible benefits for general population. Besides fundamental physcics got plenty of money recently in the form of rewards for some string theorists so it's not like the area is completely ignored.

    Finally "the idea that we raise money collectively and then, as a society, collectively choose how we will spend it" is certainly not a fundamental democratic principle it's communism.

  3. Funding measures output by volume not weight. Leviathan engine social conscience is fraud, with glowing exhaust pipes, fueled by abject failure. It is contagious. Pharma has no new cures. Renewable resources await thermodynamics violations. Particle physics and gravitation gorge Physical Review with ullage. Decades of IRRI rice research contrast with stoners' custom-created marijuana through private funding.

    Private funding would usefully award endeavor of young faculty and dexterous heretics. Absent success, back into SOP they go. The Allais effect is crap. Does it happen? 999,999 grams of kimberlite or lamproite obtain at will. Recovering one gram of diamond is accident. We are damned for wasting resources unproductively. Look different, arxiv:1102.2837; look different, arxiv:1208.5288; look different, arxiv:1109.1963 Yuri Milner's Fundamental Physics Prize is laudible in all ways but future discovery. The Gates Foundation is contrapositively obscene.

  4. If the cuts against fundamental or big science done by governements all over the world keep going or get even worse, private funding will be the only thing left to do fundamental research.

    BTW the Milner fundamental physics prize is a very good and generous thing. Everybody who complains about it is a hopless sadistic sourball who should be ashamed to begrudge fundamental physicists or physics every cent it gets!

  5. A thousand years from now, upon casual historical reflection, the general population may likely wonder why funding for quantum gravity was not a priority in our day. For it is difficult for us to imagine the countless technologies that will arise from our mastery of beyond the standard model physics.

  6. My personal take on the issue is that there is nothing inherently wrong with private funding of selected research, IF it does not unreasonably compromise the scientific integrity of the researchers involved.

    If it does, then the reseachers should "Just say No!" to the temptation.

    RE Keemo: The path to quantum gravity has already been discovered, but no QG researcher wants to admit that they failed to see something so simple, blatant and beautiful. Increased funding would only prolong the time that the poor dears spend wandering unproductively in the conceptual maze they created.

    Discrete Scale Relativity

  7. Hi Computer,

    I'm not sure exactly what you're saying. There is a lot of research into the question under which circumstances groups make good or bad decisions; Sunstein's book "Infotopia" is a good summary. By and large, groups do well as long as the question isn't one of value, there is enough information available, their opinions are independent (they don't exchange them), and they're not subject to systematic bias. A big problem with deciding about the promise of research areas by the public, individual or crowds, is lack of information and systematic bias that you get if your source is the popular science press. But you don't even have to dig so deep, just read what people say why they donate to this or that. They donate to cancer research because they know somebody who died from cancer. Now look, that's a reason I understand well from the personal perspective. But it does not make sense if you think about the big picture. You could do much more good by spending your money on a research direction that has a potential large payoff but has a lack of funding and people. Best,


  8. Hi PTMR,

    Unfortunately, your comment makes me think I've made my points very badly. What I am saying is this: Regardless of where the money comes from, it should be distributed wisely, otherwise it's wasting *our* time and effort. I mean that of the scientific community and that of society at large. You say "It's their money". I said it's irrelevant whose money it is. You should ask: Is this distribution of money a good way to direct scientific investigations? I am explaining that it's not.

    I agree that applied research has "higher chances of producing tangible benefits." That's the problem I am talking about and your comment just drives home my point. Basic research is essential. It does not receive sufficient attention exactly because its results are not tangible. But without basic research, there can't be no sustained applied research.

    Finally, I encourage you to look up communism. It's not the same as tax-funding research. Best,


  9. Hi Nemo,

    Let's better hope we don't get to the point where science is exclusively privately funded, because I think that would be pretty much the end of basic research.

    Re the Milner prize. He has chosen candidates who clearly deserve the honor, I have no problem in practice, I have a problem in principle. He is setting a strong message to everybody who enters the field what type of research is deemed prizeworthy. I disapprove of this because it has the risk of being harmful for research in the long run if the choices aren't made very carefully. The Nobelprizes are awarded after Nature has made her judgement. Milner is interfering with the scientific process that comes before such judgement. Just consider for a moment he'd have awarded his prizes to people working in a field that you happen to think is a total waste of time and a dead end. Would you still approve of the influence that he has? Best,


  10. Hi Robert,

    It isn't that easy. See, even if researchers' integrity is not affected by accepting funding, this funding will still promote research in one area over others and still attract more people (which will generate more papers and attract even more people). What can happen is that we'll all lose time and effort by paying attention to some research direction just because one rich guy thought it might be interesting. Best,


  11. I would be selfish not to tell you you're right.

  12. Hi Bee,

    I quite strongly disagree with what you say about the Milner prize.

    The Milner prize fills a gap between the Fields Medal and the Nobel Prize, which often awards rather applied, experimental, or theoretical topics only after they has been (directly!) experimentally established long time ago.

    The new fundamental physics prize can be awarded for research that has already lead to important and interesting theoretical and conceptual new insights, which are still work in progress, and could therefore never ever get awarded a Nobel.

    Such a theoretical or fundamental physics prize has been missing and it is a good thing that we have it now.
    Milner knows quite a lot about theoretical or fundamental physics himself, so he was able to make good choices for the first winners. So he did not award it fields that are demonstrably a wast of time or dead ends. He awarded it to good and interesting ideas which have a non zero probability to play some role in the fundamental laws of nature, even if it might still need some time to firmly establish these ideas and concepts experimantally.

    So I strongly disagree with this when you say, the Milner Prize interfers with the scientific process. It is a good thing.

    But I agree that things like quantum gravity for example should get more funding and support ;-)

  13. Hi Nemo,

    I think you are misunderstanding me. As I said, I have no problem with Milner's picks. I have a problem with the procedure in principle, not in practice. You write

    "The new fundamental physics prize can be awarded for research that has already lead to important and interesting theoretical and conceptual new insights, which are still work in progress"

    but as long as this "work is in progress" what is deemed "important" and "interesting" are subjective and/or social constructs, and not necessarily indicators that it will be relevant in the future. For all we know right now, some of these topics will end up being a footnote in the history of science, and not even interesting ones. In this case, Milner's prize will just have increased the amount of time and effort wasted. Is that what you want? Do you not care?

    The same problem does not exist for the Nobelprize and Field's medal. You say you think Milner made good choices and the fields are not dead ends. Fine. But I was asking you to consider that this was the case. What would you think then about the prize? That is the problem I'm referring to.

    A fish with feathers also "fills a gap", but that doesn't mean it's a useful beast.




  14. "What can happen is that we'll all lose time and effort by paying attention to some research direction just because one rich guy thought it might be interesting. Best, B."

    If scientists would stop chasing fashions like so many sheep, then this would not be a problem at all.

    Scientists should be able to independently decide what is of interst to them, what constitutes good and promising science, and what should be funded with public money.

    Nature shows them the difference between good testable ideas and untestable pseudo-science. You just have to convince them that nature is a better judge of merit than celebrity physicists and the <1%.

    Robert L. Oldershaw
    Fractal Cosmology

  15. Regarding the "sheep" comment above.

    Check out this latest effort from supersymmetry die-hards.

    "Simply Unnatural Supersymmetry"

    Authors are Nima Arkani-Hamed, Arpit Gupta, David E. Kaplan, Neal Weiner, Tom Zorawski

    These academics want to forge straight ahead over the Platonic Cliff of Delusion.

    The question is: How many lemmings will blindly follow, assuming that mathematical erudition implies wisdom?

    Robert L. Oldershaw
    Discrete Scale Relativity
    Fractal Cosmology

  16. Hi Robert,

    Yes, I agree with you. Alas, too many "shoulds" in your comment. Most scientists chase fashions for very basic reasons: They have to live from something. This is why I've been preaching that to accelerate progress, we need to take away the necessity (in particular for young people) to chase fashions. Easier said than done. People "should" listen... Best,


  17. Europeans are so confused about notions of liberty and democracy, it's like the Federalist Papers, the American Constitution, Isaiah Berlin never happened.

    It is so easy to throw the word 'democracy' around when you really mean tyranny of the majority (a phrase coined by an enlightened european who travelled to America in the 1800s and learned something - Tocqueville).

    You would think that given Europe's fascist history and continuing love for all things centralized, Europeans would be the last to lecture America, the only developed country that has avoided fascism through the genius of people like Madison.

    I know the central planning model of China/Germany/USSR/Singapore etc is very appealing.. it might very well make people richer in the short run and maybe even in the long run. But you can be assured that mob rule and not respecting individual sovereignty from majority control will end in a fascist state as Europe finds out repeatedly.

  18. sorry to revisit but it is amazing that you have turned the strength of American society on its head.

    Most of us, including those on the far left here in the US, would acknowledge that the fact that private giving is so high in the US compared to Europe is good for moral reasons (besides efficiency).

    It creates a society where people are personally invested in their charity - people of all political persuasions I know help out at soup kitchens, at their church etc. Most would agree that this has social benefits that cannot be obtained by taxing those people instead, sending the money through a giant federal machine 1000s of miles away and ultimately running a soup kitchen with it.

    Sane people of the left in America I know who share Sabine's viewpoint on taxes at least acknowledge that losing private charity is an undesirable (but perhaps affordable) side-effect of their high-tax proposals. That's why I am so grateful to a member of American society and not Europe or elsewhere.

    My basic point: Government is not meant to replace civil society and all of its other institutions.

  19. Hi Bee,

    in principle you are right and things could go wrong with such a prize as Milner has defined it.

    But fact is, that he knew enough about fundamental physics to not award some fringe surfer or biker dudes or generally random people who would score high on John Beaz's crackpot index who want to overthrow Einstein or QM just for the heck of it etc.

    And in my opnion there is really nothing wrong with the idea of such a fundamental physics prize, that can be awarded for... well ... fundamental physics such as cosmology, BSM particle physics, quantum gravity ;-), etc too apart from other less disputed topics in condensed matter, quantum information, etc ...
    Do you think people who work on such topics or their work do not deserve being acknowledged by a larger prize in principle?
    Their work is valuable too, even though not every idea or concept that comes up in the course of time can finally be completely right at the end of the day. Before the Milner prize, there was no possibility to aknowledge work in these topics, neither by the Nobel prize nor by the Fields medal.

    So I still say this particular fish with feathers is a good thing, signalling to the world that fundamental physics is valuable too even though many things are still work in progress.

    Ok, this was my last spam to this topic :-)

  20. Bee: "What I am saying is this: Regardless of where the money comes from, it should be distributed wisely, otherwise it's wasting *our* time and effort. I mean that of the scientific community and that of society at large. You say "It's their money". I said it's irrelevant whose money it is. You should ask: Is this distribution of money a good way to direct scientific investigations? I am explaining that it's not."

    Yes, the money should be distributed wisely but in a free society it is not and won't ever be distributed the way you or I think would be wise. In a free society everyone distributes his own money as he damn well pleases and the only way to change that would be to abolish private enterprises which as I said is communism.

    Despite the fact that private money won't ever be spent optimally I think we can agree that suboptimal private funding of science is still prefarable to no private funding of sciece.

    And this issue is completely separate from taxation level since we are talking about rare individuals who are willing to spend much larger portion of their own wealth then what government could ever get from them by means of realistic taxation.


  21. Hi Bee,

    Well, once again Einstein showed how it can be done.

    One gets a day job and does free-thinking science on nights and weekends.

    Then to the extent that it is possible, i.e., to the extent that one's private scientific work is appreciated, then one can transition into the academic world, but without having to kiss-ass or compromise an unreasonable amount.

    It's a strategy fit only for those who do not concern themselves much with status or money.

    One has to start with this strategy from the get-go.

    Not one "should" in this post :)

    Self-Similarity! - It's the Law

  22. Private funding for science, an old idea.

  23. Robert,

    You have got to stop "stringing" people along.:)


  24. Ron,

    Germany has a free market economy, not a planned one. It might also be interesting for you to look up how we came to have the democratic system we have before you complain about it. This way having cleared out your main misconceptions, your only actual argument seems to be your believe that private donations are preferable because they are "good for moral reasons." I'm sorry, but this strongly depends on what you mean with "moral" which is an expression I don't know how to define. I could equally well say paying taxes is "good for moral reasons" and there is little you could say against this seeing that it's merely a play on empty words.

    It is a fair point to say that personal involvement motivates people, but as I said, the price to pay for this is high because it's an unstable and inefficient involvement. Best,


  25. First, if it is the same Templeton, the motivation is not interest in science but bribing people into saying good things about religion.

    Second, the main question is should the state fund essentially all basic research and the answer is yes. Assuming this is the case, then I see no problem with people spending their own money on basic science. Hey, everyone who has chosen to continue doing research in academia for a few weeks, months, years or decades is spending his own private money (from whatever source) on research, choosing to fund something the state didn't want to.

    Also, there is a clear distinction between funding research and awarding prizes.

  26. Hi PTMR,

    You are simply wrong with what you say. Intelligent decision making in groups is not the same as communism, whose most relevant characteristic is absence of private property, something entirely different. I think you must have misunderstood the prime reason for democracy. Neither is aggregating opinions to the end of decision making in conflict with freedom. There's some cultural difference though between what Americans and Europeans consider freedom. Europeans tend to think that the government supports and protects their freedom, whereas Americans tend to think the government constrains what they believe is freedom. Be that as it may, it's irrelevant to what I'm saying.

    All I am saying is this: Unless scientists have good reason to believe that private funding, the way it is distributed, is beneficial to the process of science, they should be wary that it interferes with their research in a way that is not beneficial for progress. That goes in particular for any influence on the relevance of research areas that circumvents peer review. Best,


  27. Hi Phillip,

    Yes, there's a difference between funding research and awarding prizes. Strictly speaking, I shouldn't have thrown them together. But if a prize is very prominent and awarded for specific topics, the problem is the same: It sets a message to the community that says "this is the right way", which influences researcher's efforts. Depending on the criteria for the award, this can lead people astray, blow up research fields that have little promise, and waste resources.

    Yes, in principle every single person does influence every other just by investing their own time and money. That's the issue of herding and peer pressure, which also exists, but not what I was talking about here.



  28. Hi Robert,

    Yes, that's a possibility. But it's very difficult and I doubt it's a very efficient use of bright minds. One example doesn't make a good sample. Best,


  29. Hi Nemo,

    Regarding the "fish with feathers" prize. Since you say you see the problem that exists "in principle" let me say that "in principle" the problem need not exist. I am not against a prize for interesting theoretical, unconfirmed, speculative, research. My objection is on the procedure:

    I believe that peer review, imperfect as it is in practice, is a very valuable aggregation mechanism that benefits science. I don't want anybody to go around and personally amplify the relevance of anybody's research in a significant way just because he or she thinks it's cool. This will most likely just waste time and money and slow down progress. I believe Milner is in the process of setting up some advisory committee or something like this, which is a good thing to do. I hope it's assembled in a fair process and the procedure is transparent. Best,



  30. "Yes, that's a possibility. But it's very difficult and I doubt it's a very efficient use of bright minds. One example doesn't make a good sample."


    I should (sorry) have specified that for people who want to do "normal" science (in the Kuhnian sense) the Einstein strategy is not the best strategy, or even close to it.

    For the rare mavericks who want to do go beyond existing conventions and assumptions, the Einstein strategy is by far the best strategy.

    An important distinction.

    What If Conformal Geometry Is The Geometry Of Nature? No Absolute Lengths Or Times Or Scales!

  31. IMO the science, mainstream physics in particular deserves the private funding more than ever before. Of course such a model brings it drawbacks, but the scientists are already spending more than 40% of their productive time with grant applications - so there is apparently a huge overemployment. The physicists are particularly responsible for the contemporary situation with their many years standing boycott of cold fusion research.

  32. Hi Bee, I agree with PTMR, Ron and Robert's comments because I find some contradictions in yours. Let's start saying that your whole post is a big SHOULD, because funding of science doesn't work as you'd like.
    You say that collective (¿democratic?) decisions are better than personal opinions and interests about research targets, and it's probably true, but since when is democracy related to good science? The law of gravity doesn't need to be voted by majorities. You don't want researchers to waste time on marketing selling their work to donors, but you trust in politicians who are easier to fool, and don't care about a money that they didn't have to earn. If even you are worried about frauds or "fashion" scientists, let me be more worried if illiterate politicians are deciding which proyect gets my money. Why is convincing a billionaire that some research is cool so bad, and telling the same to a bureaucrat so acceptable?
    I can't agree when you say that it doesn't matter where the money comes from, because that is the point of private donations vs. public taxation. In a free society, you can't tell anyone how you'd like to distribute their money, unless you are the goverment and you tax them to get their earnings. There is a giant "moral" difference between free voluntary private donations, and taxes, because the latter implies forcing people to do something they don't want to do.
    It's amazing how some scientists use their profession to justify almost everything to get money from others. I love science, but I hate the use of its prestige to live from other's taxes. Of course you have to sell your work, you have to get some results, or you'll have to find another job to live from. And if we're talking about altruism, why wouldn't some scientists work for free?
    You name three billionaires that are a perfect example of how private money can grow in a few years, investing in areas (user software, films, recreation Internet) that would have been ignored by every public expert. But now we all want a little piece of their success. Society gets more tangible benefits when scientific results make investors earn fortunes, than when people are forced to finance every single experiment just because "it's science". Thanks to real business and tangible results, some scientists will be able to live dedicated to science that will get results in a couple of centuries. In the meantime, I'd like science to create lots of Gates, Buffetts and Zuckerbergs. That science is Economy, and it says that we should leave them choose where they want to put their money.
    In the end, you are saying that scientists need food, and will work in any paid research, regardless if it's beneficial for progress or not, so "others" must decide where the money goes. Well, I can't imagine better "others" to decide than the ones where the money comes from.

  33. Perhaps a bit late on this one but I strongly disagree with those who say private funding is bad or worse, that it should be replaced by higher taxes and then those funds directed by govt bureaucrats because it is 'democratic'

    Firstly, funding of science on a large scale by government is really a new phenom, a by-product of WWII and later the cold war. One could even argue that in physics and math much of the important theoretical work happened prior to that time.

    Second, private donations to science/technology should be viewed as supplements to normal funding and not a replacement. An exception would be for the funding of a new institute or research facility. But in those cases the funding is usually structured as a trust so that some level of funding can be assured for some duration.

    And while it may be true that the distribution of charitable donations may not be some people's liking, last I checked not too many people in non-HEP physics and astronomy are very happy about how the public science funding pie is cut up either.

    So before anyone wishes for (even) higher taxes on the rich I would first ask what % of that money would end in their research hands? And is that somehow better than if the mil/billionaire gave a very large donation to an area of their interest or past work (say, aerospace, semiconductors or even ..metalurgy)?

    sorry so long winded!

  34. "So before anyone wishes for (even) higher taxes on the rich"

    Who said anything about raising taxes? Whether that should be done is a different question, but has little if anything to do with the research budget for publicly funded science. Other areas are so huge in comparison that the entire research budget is lost in the noise. What is the US defense budget? A couple of million dollars---per minute.

  35. Hi emiliomail,

    You're misunderstanding me. First, note that the democratic decision making in particular appeared in reference to charity, not to science, so it's a red herring, much as all referral to government and politics. What I am saying is that decision making in groups is under suitable conditions preferable to individual decision making.

    No, in science one doesn't vote on whether or not a law is correct. In the end it's nature who judges. But the decisions that we are concerned with here are those that have to be made *before* such a judgement by nature is available. And the way this is done in science is by peer review or by the dynamics of the academic system in general. Excuse if I assume that you know all that, because I've been written about this on this blog extensively. What you want is that the dynamics of the system channel resources efficiently so that progress is not hindered.

    "In a free society, you can't tell anyone how you'd like to distribute their money, unless you are the goverment and you tax them to get their earnings. There is a giant "moral" difference between free voluntary private donations, and taxes, because the latter implies forcing people to do something they don't want to do."

    I already said this above to somebody else, you have a peculiar notion of "free". If you live in a democracy, the government is no "they". YOU are the government. If YOU don't like what "the government" does there's something wrong either with your political system or with your understanding of it (or both). Either way, it's not a problem I'm trying to address here.

    No, it doesn't matter whose money it is, but it seems to be difficult for you to understand the purpose of money. Money is not an end unto itself, it's a mechanism to direct investment of resources. The question is how does this mechanism work best. IMHO, if you have a society that has such a large income gap as the USA and produces multi-billionaires, there's something very wrong with this system already. But let's forget about this for a moment and buy into neo-capitalist thinking, then these people are rich because they know how to make good investments and understand the economy. Okay, fine. But does that mean they know what science is promising and worth funding. Very questionable. In other words, you have no reason to believe whatsoever that their decision will be a good investment. This is why I am saying it makes more sense to use other means of distributing money, eg through funding agencies. Best,


  36. Hi Bee,

    I'm not misunderstanding you, that's why I disagree. It's clear that I'm not an expert in science like you, but you're not talking about physics in this post, the topic is how to efficiently fund science and how to distribute money (that maybe grows on trees, who cares), so I'll ignore the way you talk down to me, and I'll explain my point of view, and I won't guess what you understand or not about economy and politics.

    I thought we could talk about governments and politics regarding charity, "essential services, like roads and bank regulation", "basic investments like infrastructure, education", and that the same discussion must be had about private funding of science. Well, I love private donations or investments in charity, education, science or roads, it's ok for me, I can only be grateful to the donors. And you seem to be worried about rich donors and crowdfunding, you prefer taxes, to pay for all that basic services, because of the four unwanted side-effects of private funding, that we could find in science funding, but also in education, roads or garbage trucks. There's nothing special in science that makes it different from the other investments, so we're talking about money and politics.

    Of course you can critizice private funding because of some supposed side-effects, but that argument is so lame as critizicing the USA because its income gap is not as narrow as you'd like, or critizicing peer review and academic system because of its countless cases of fraud. But I'm not saying that a private donation is good or efficient just because it's voluntary, I just say that it's better than taxes, and that people that give their money to a cause are much more careful than people that just pay their taxes or politicians who distribute that money. Peer review and academic system are still the better way to decide which researches are worth the investment, I'm not discussing that, you're right. But money doesn't go straight from taxes to labs, it goes through a lot of political and bureaucratic decisions. And you should pay attention to another side-effect of private investments: when it's a private dumb decision, only the donor loses money, but all the society gets damaged when politicians follow fashion researches to win an election, or an Oscar. Taxes don't guarantee good scientific investments, and private donations don't try to avoid experts' opinions. And, as someone told you before, both can be complementary sources of money for science. Lucky you, because in some other professions, we only depend on customers, and we don't face the "problem" of billionaire donors.

  37. Regarding your peculiar notion of freedom and money and democracy, let me say that I think that's the root of all your thought about "distributing money" and the "best" way to do it. Living in a democracy means that no matters how many people (99%?) want to distribute my money (my goods) to use it as a social mechanism to achieve their goals, and not mine. Freedom means that I can decide what I do with my money, and if I invest it I get the results, that can be a fortune, or bankruptcy. And I'm free to vote and be the government, but that doesn't mean that I'll be able to manage people's lives against their will. As government, we won't be able as well to know "what science is worth funding". We shouldn't be able to decide that while you and your children are not starving, we, the government, are not going to pay your work because there are lots of people to feed before. What children are worth feeding? I don't want to decide that, and I don't want the goverment to decide so many things about my life. And it scares me the day when they (or YOU) only question "how this mechanism works best" ignoring if it implies forcing people to work for others ("researchers shouldn’t be forced to waste time on marketing"), and all that "unglamorous" moral issues that you forget when you talk about taxes. I understand your position, but while you depend on public money, consider that "you better be popular and good at social networking if you want to raise..." taxes. Crowdfunding is as old as elections and democracy: not forcing but convincing people. Sorry but you didn't convince me. Crowd or billionaire funding are still better for me.

    Thanks for this interesting debate, regards.

  38. Hi emiliomail,

    First of all, I'm not "talking down to you", I'm sorry if you have that impression. Second, I still think you're misunderstanding me. Your elaboration about taxes is entirely besides the point because taxation is just a way to collect money for scientific research, not to distribute it. What I am worried about is the distribution.

    "Peer review and academic system are still the better way to decide which researches are worth the investment, I'm not discussing that, you're right."

    Good, because that's my point.

    "But money doesn't go straight from taxes to labs, it goes through a lot of political and bureaucratic decisions."

    I never said the present system is perfect, we all know it has many faults. But it is working reasonably well at least where I live. Whenever you want to change something that works well, you better make sure you're not making it worse. This is why I am saying think of the side-effects.

    Now since you seem to agree on my concerns regarding private science funding anyway, let me just repeat that unfortunately I still have the impression your attitude towards democracy is a funny one.

    "Living in a democracy means that no matters how many people (99%?) want to distribute my money (my goods) to use it as a social mechanism to achieve their goals, and not mine. Freedom means that I can decide what I do with my money, and if I invest it I get the results, that can be a fortune, or bankruptcy."

    Well, as I said above, this is a very odd notion of freedom. Your idea of "freedom" is simply raw capitalism. The very fact that most people on the planet live in democracies with regulations on the market and social security means that the majority of people do not believe this to be freedom. What they want instead is that they don't starve even if they go bankrupt. And the way you guarantee this is... by taxation. If you don't like that, you're not subscribing to the social contract and shouldn't be a citizen of your country.

    "What children are worth feeding? I don't want to decide that, and I don't want the goverment to decide so many things about my life."

    There are many decisions we don't want to make, but that have to be made. Not doing anything is also a decision. The decision you are making is to let children starve if their parents were stupid enough to invest into a business that went bankrupt. Sorry, but if that is your attitude it doesn't seem to me like we'll ever reach common ground. Best,



COMMENTS ON THIS BLOG ARE PERMANENTLY CLOSED. You can join the discussion on Patreon.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.